Full disclosure: like the rancher, hunter and butcher in a recent story in The Atlantic, I am what some would call a ‘reformed vegetarian’, or a ‘born-again carnivore’, as this less charitable vegan would describe me. I consider myself an ethical omnivore.
My story is not unlike many who spent years as a vegetarian only to resume eating meat â€“ I chose a vegetarian diet for ethical and environmental reasons, and returned to meat for health reasons. I had two very healthy pregnancies while vegetarian and breastfed my first two children with no issues, only to become severely anaemic early in the third pregnancy. I tried Floradix Herbal Iron Supplement, which had seen me through the final trimesters before without dropping into the anaemic range, to no avail.
As I sat in wan exhaustion at work one day in the third month, it came to me: a burger will fix this. Considering I hadn’t eaten nor craved meat for over six years (and no pork or poultry for even longer because of my particular concerns about the horrific conditions these animals face in intensive systems), this was a pretty weird thought. But moments later, I walked into a little burger joint in Smith Street, Fitzroy and ordered a burger and asked them to slather it with hot English mustard. I’ll be honest, I felt absolutely nothing except exhilaration and a sense of well being. No guilt â€“ I think my body was thanking me, again, weird, I know, ‘cos it was a burger after all, not a scotch filet, but, hey, that iron slid into my blood cells and brought colour to my cheeks for the first time in months.
For the rest of the pregnancy, I ate red meat two or three times a week, as well as my usual high intake of leafy greens and vitamin C-rich foods, and my iron levels returned to normal â€“ I didn’t even have to take any supplements in the final trimester. And I felt fabulous. I slowly took up sustainable fish and lamb, but it took another couple years before I could eat poultry or pork, and only when I could find free range. I really never even considered returning to a vegetarian diet â€“ I had started to better understand the role that livestock plays in sustainable farming, and I became increasingly aware of where to source meat that had been sustainably and ethically raised. Of course, these days in Australia the options are improving all the time, especially for those with ready access to farmers’ markets and armed with the knowledge to frequent them and seek out ethical producers.
On the sustainability question I can cite a lot of research that supports systems that integrate livestock into holistic agricultural systems. My post on agroecology and food security has links to some of that research, as do my notes from the 2011 Sustainable Food Summit, and I’d strongly recommend reading ‘Meat: a Benign Extravagance‘ by Simon Fairlie, which even converted the previously staunch vegan George Monbiot to advocating for sustainable agricultural systems that include livestock. Monbiot’s post is an excellent overview of Fairlie’s book, and captures the key messages about inaccurate reporting of feed conversion ratios, livestock water consumption, and other fallacies that lead to the conclusion that one shouldn’t eat meat.
So while it’s easy these days to counter the ‘animal farming is unsustainable’ furphy with an increasing body of evidence that show how we can feed the world with small-scale, integrated, ethical agricultural systems (because of course the vegans and ethical omnivores already agree that intensively farming animals is both unsustainable and unethical), the ethical disagreement seems harder.
My recent twitter debate with vegan activist @MSizer reminded me what an impasse we come to when his position is ‘it’s immoral to eat animals’ and mine is ‘no it’s not’. Although I have some background in philosophy, it’s not my discipline, but there was an excellent article in the Conversation that went through the very difficult and complex philosophical arguments around eating animals that I recommend you read.
The fundamental question is whether one believes it is okay to take an animal’s life for our nutrition and pleasure. @MSizer does not believe it is morally defensible to do so, but like many other omnivores, I believe it is, so long as the animal has lived a pain and stress-free life on the paddock in an environment that allowed it to engage in its instinctive behaviours, and that its slaughter is quick and painless, and preferably done without the animal knowing it was about to happen. I am comfortable with humans eating non-human animals in the same way that I am comfortable with birds eating worms or lions eating antelope.
I have a pang of sadness for the life lost, especially at such times as we face that death in person, such as when we slaughter our own chickens, just as I have a pang when I see footage of a predator taking its prey in the wild. That doesn’t mean I don’t think it should happen. The more deeply engaged I have become with these ethical concerns, the more mindful my meat eating is â€“ I am horrified these days if I overcook a piece of meat, and have recently caught myself saying, ‘this animal gave us its life, we should cook it with the respect it is due’. I am also a strong advocate for and practitioner of a reduction of meat and dairy consumption in the average Australian’s diet (and other members of high-meat-eating societies, of course). If we all simply ate less then the demand pressures that got us into this unsustainable, unethical industrial food mess would diminish, and our global food security issues would with them.
But that is my position, and I should address the position put forward by the likes of Animals Australia, PETA and @MSizer, that is, that it is immoral to kill and eat animals. I don’t really think I could convince vegans with this ethical code that it’s not immoral, and frankly, I’m not really interested in trying. I have great respect for people who have chosen a vegan diet out of compassion, and I’m definitely not interested in trying to get this very small minority to take up meat eating again. But I would like to put two important questions to them.
First, if you believe it is immoral to eat animals, does that mean that people in the global south on subsistent diets who are able to access some meat in a very nutritionally limited diet are immoral for doing so? Would you begrudge the one in six people in the world who are food insecure or starving the right to eat meat if they can? And if not, is your ethical position perhaps not so absolute as you suggest it to be?
Second, I think it’s wonderful that groups such as Animals Australia fight for animal rights, but to draw attention to the worst abuses of industrial farming and then draw the conclusion that therefore we shouldn’t eat meat is totally unproductive in the campaign to improve animal welfare in agriculture. I know their premise remains ‘but you shouldn’t eat meat’, but the very simple reality is that the majority of those who can eat meat in the world will continue to for a very long time to come, perhaps forever, and no amount of activism will stop that. There are deeply rooted cultural, social and economic reasons why it is so, as well as the environmental ones whereby livestock are healthy contributors in agroecological systems such as these examples in China.
The most positive impact any of us can have on the majority omnivorous culture is to fight for stronger animal welfare measures in agriculture right now. A personal decision not to eat animal products is a powerful statement in itself, and will cause a level of reflection amongst those with whom you engage, but if you don’t join the vocal fight for ethical animal agriculture, in my opinion, you’re wasting a valuable opportunity to work with ethical omnivores to change policy, regulation and awareness of improved production models amongst producers. By starting the conversation with, ‘I think you’re immoral’, you alienate most omnivores immediately, and are then far less likely to actually influence their decisions.
I’m a free-range pig farmer. I despise intensive farms with pigs in huge sheds on concrete, the use of sow stalls, routine castration, docking and the entirety of how those poor animals are treated over the course of their short lives. The ‘outdoor bred’ farms are an improvement, and one that I am happy to acknowledge and indeed even promote as a better option than the former. I still want pigs raised outside on pasture their whole lives, but I’m glad the outdoor bred growers have sprung up to provide more humane treatment for the millions of pork eaters out there. I’d like eventually for all pigs to be free range, just as I want all animals to be. We may not get there, but I’ll keep fighting.
Vegans such as @MSizer want no animals grown for our consumption and I don’t begrudge you that position, but in the meanwhile, you could still acknowledge the vastly better conditions under true free-range production models and push for all animal agriculture to be to those standards. So long as animals are raised for food, I reckon its unconscionable not to.